Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s talk of reform since he came to power in 2006 only serves to make the gap between words and reality even wider in one of the world’s most absolute and brutal dictatorships.
“Re-elected” this year with 97% of the votes cast, he said he favoured a multiparty system and privately-owned media. The one-party system has been abolished and replaced by two new parties … created by the government. There is little chance that government opponents in exile will dare to return home.
Despite opening up the economy and playing Russia and Western countries off against each other, this former health minister and personal dentist to the late President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov still has his face set against the media. The number of journalists and human rights activists in prison or psychiatric hospitals is unknown.
State control of the country’s five TV stations, 25 newspapers and 15 magazines is absolute and even Russian TV stations that can be picked up in Turkmenistan are censored before being relayed to local viewers.
Activity at the handful of recently-opened Internet cafés is very closely monitored and they only give access to a highly-censored version of the Web known as Turkmenet.
The availability of the mobile Internet allowed ordinary citizens to tell the world about the deadly explosion of an arms depot in the capital’s suburbs in July last year. However, the crackdown was ferocious.
Berdymukhamedov appears to be more intent on promoting his own personality cult than allowing his critics to express themselves.
Hopes rose in vain when he broke with the weirder aspects of the legacy of his predecessor. It is true that days of the week and months are no longer named after members of the late leader’s family, but the new president has ordered that he be officially known from now on as Arkadag (Protector).
His smiling portrait has replaced his predecessor’s everywhere, his books are bestsellers and his father is honoured for having brought up a son who is “infinitely loyal to the people.”
The local media undoubtedly cannot wait to see the new “holy book” on which Berdymukhamedov has been working to replace the “Rukhnama”, a collection of the late dictator’s sayings that are a compulsory part of the school curriculum at all levels.